It’s not often a man folds a tent this quickly.
On learning that he was to be charged by the Football Association in England with breaching its regulations for wearing a yellow ribbon, in support of imprisoned Catalan politicians, the Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, was unequivocal:
"They (the FA) know I will wear it always. I can wear it somewhere else. Uefa have another opinion. They say you can wear it as long as it’s with respect. Here, it’s different, apparently. I have empathy for the people who have no freedom; those guys in Spain, who are in jail. They haven’t been proven guilty. Anyone can be in that situation. Before being a football manager, I am a human being and this is for humanity.
Guardiola had been warned twice previously about wearing the ribbon, but had persisted. He was standing his ground, in defence of his fellow Catalans and his self-professed ideas on freedom and humanity, peaceful protest and solidarity.
The solidarity lasted a week. And then a couple of things happened.
First, came a terse statement, this week, from the FA: “Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, has admitted an FA charge for wearing a political message, specifically a yellow ribbon, in breach of the FA’s kit-and-advertising regulations. A paper hearing has been requested, with a date to be set, in due course.”
And then came Guardiola’s announcement that he would no longer wear the yellow ribbon: “At the end, there are rules. They [the FA] have them and they apply them. I accept the decision, because I have to. I accept them, but it doesn’t mean I agree with the decision. But I am here, I am working here, and there are rules and I accept them.”
It is understandable that Guardiola would not want to detract from his club’s chances of winning trophies by creating a sideshow. His abrupt U-turn demonstrates how utterly ruthless he is in pursuit of sporting success.
Nonetheless, what Guardiola has done is jaw-dropping. It takes an epic capitulation to shift, within a week, from ‘I will wear it always’ to what effectively is ‘I accept the rules and I won’t wear it’.
The only thing more outrageous in this story is the hypocrisy of the FA and its enduring capacity to be self-serving.
The FA was fined £35,000 (€39,000) by Fifa for displaying poppies during the World Cup qualifier against Scotland in November 2016. In advance of that match, Fifa had warned the FA not to display the poppy on team jerseys, but this warning was ignored.
Instead, the FA said: ‘We fully respect the laws of the game and take our founding role on the International Football Association Board extremely seriously. The poppy is an important symbol of remembrance and we do not believe it represents a political, religious, or commercial message, nor does it relate to any one historical event.
"The FA intend to pay appropriate tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, by having the England team wear black armbands, bearing poppies, in our fixture on Armistice Day.”
The Scottish FA was also fined, because its players wore poppies during the match, while the Northern Ireland and Wales football associations were fined for inappropriate displays of poppies in other matches on November 11, 2016.
Explaining the decision, Claudio Sulser, the chairman of the Fifa disciplinary committee, said: “With these decisions, it is not our intention to judge or question specific commemorations, as we fully respect the significance of such moments in the respective countries, each one of them with its own history and background.
"However, keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner, across Fifa’s 211 member associations, the display, among others, of any political or religious symbol, is strictly prohibited. In the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else.”
The notion that the poppy is not a political symbol is laughable. It is true that its emergence as a symbol of remembrance, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, is rooted in the emotions of profound loss, rather than any narrow politics.
Amid the churn and devastation of the war, the poppy had thrived, even against the chaos of bombast. It made its way into a famous poem — ‘In Flanders Fields’ — written in May, 1915 by Lt Col John McCrae, who lost a friend at the Battle of Ypres. McCrae wrote:
The poppy was the image which McCrae used to convey hope regardless of circumstance, but the story does not begin and end with emotion.
Instead, it became inherently political and the poppy is more than just a simple, neutral remembrance of those who died in the Great War. To doubt this is to ignore the scale of the abuse that is now heaped on those who decline to wear a poppy each November.
Apart altogether from the obvious patriotic statement that is associated with wearing the poppy, the substantial point is that it is sold by the Royal British Legion and its proceeds are used to support those who serve, or have served, in the British armed forces in all wars they fight, and in remembrance of all the wars they have fought.
The merits of providing such support are a matter of personal judgement, but to argue that it is a non-political act is ridiculous. (Can there be anything more political than war?)
This brings us to the second point that matters: If the FA are grossly hypocritical in their charging of Pep Guardiola, then Fifa are delusional in their claim that, ‘in the stadium and on the pitch, there is only room for sport, nothing else.’
Even the most fleeting study of the workings of modern sport — let alone the history of political protest that routinely manifests itself across the sporting world — reveals the extent to which the stadium and the pitch have room for much more than sport.
Look, for example, at the manner in which governments from Kazakhstan ($250,000) to Canada ($20,000) paid cash bonuses to their Olympic, gold medal-winning athletes in the 2012 Olympic Games.
The British winners of gold medals had their images put on stamps, with the prestige of this accompanied by substantial royalty payments.
Such ambitions to project the nation, and to promote unity and identity, are to be seen across numerous sports.
Measuring the success, or otherwise, is not straightforward, but the intent is clear and it comes in many forms.
From the desire of politicians to be associated with sporting success, to the rituals of flag and anthem, there is no denying that politics is intimately connected with sport.
The men who run Fifa know this, of course, and the association has profited massively from the desire of states to be associated with major sporting events. And still, they trot out the meaningless platitude about sport and politics not mixing.
There is a further subtext. The fact that Manchester City is owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates complicates matters for Guardiola’s protest.
It allowed people to paint him as a hypocrite that he should protest so fervently for Catalan autonomy, yet be employed by people who have a disgraceful record in respect of human rights, and basic democratic freedoms, in their own states (not to mention his ambassadorship role for Qatar’s World Cup).
The obvious strains in Guardiola’s logic are a reminder of the capacity of nationalist impulses to draw people into positions that are internally contradictory.
It doesn’t in any way disallow people from making a stand on one issue, while declining to make a stand on another.
But it does accentuate the complexities of dealing with every protest and its place in sport.
And what does the public think?
Ultimately, people tend to sympathise with the right of those who dissent, providing they are either in agreement with — or indifferent to — the cause that is being served.
We like our dissent to be Hollywood feel-good, all warm and fuzzy, with beautiful actors and neat causes, where goodies and baddies are easily discerned. But we do not really want to be challenged by it.
And the wheels come off when the cause or the person is not a popular one.
Which makes the capitulation of Guardiola — whatever the merits of his cause — all the more disappointing. It would have been glorious theatre to watch him face down the FA.
He could have properly exposed them for the charlatans that they are. After all, the FA never paid the fine and Fifa duly changed the relevant rules to accommodate poppy-wearing.
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.
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